Friday, March 20, 2015

ADA Backlash and the Limits of Legal Reform

In class yesterday we talked a lot about the limits of the law and legal reform as a means of engendering social justice/change. Without a doubt, having recourse to the law is important and such reforms are absolutely worth pursuing. I think one of the issues with the disability rights movement, however, is that legal reform has all too often been seen as an end goal instead of something to pursue in the interim. Combatting deeply-ingrained ableist thinking demands radical restructuring of society. 

Marta Russell’s essay, “Backlash, the Political Economy, and Structural Exclusion,” speaks to this point really well. She asserts that businesses were responsible for the strongest backlash against the ADA and argues that “the backlash against the ADA is a product of capitalist economic opposition” and, further, that “liberal policy proscriptions will necessarily fail to create the conditions required to achieve economic and social justice” (p. 255). Russell points to job insecurity as endemic to capitalism, an economic system under which disabled people have historically been and continue to be unemployed at vastly higher rates than non-disabled people. She explains that “a substantial body of research challenges the notion that differences in human capital, quality of education, and years of work experience can adequately explain the wage differentials and employment patterns that remain prominent in the economy”— much like the massive pay disparities between male and female surgeons we discussed yesterday (p. 261). 

Further, Laden and Schwartz’s essay points to how cognitive and bodily norms rooted in ableism are exploited for profit through the manufacturing and subsequent exploitation of fear surrounding those who don’t or can’t subscribe to such norms. They reveal how norms around psychiatric normalcy are employed to advance the trope of the mentally ill “dangerous coworker” (p. 192). In turn, professional services are marketed to employers to alleviate this manufactured fear. As the authors note, “The commodity value of disseminated fear is obvious. Reshaping perceptions of extraordinary events by representing them as commonplace increases the perceived need for professional services, if only to address liability concerns” (p. 194). Importantly, businesses consistently exploit the fear and anxiety around disability that pervades ableist societies for capital gains. This is apparent in anxiety around autism, ADHD, and other disabilities depicted as “epidemics” that reproduce ableism while simultaneously cultivating fear that is easily exploited by industry in order to sell various tests, interventions, pharmaceuticals, etc., particularly to mothers (via “super mom” tropes that render mothers responsible for protecting their children from the apparently endless threats of illness/disability their children face).

Beyond this, though, and as Dani astutely pointed out in class today, there are some folks with disabilities who really will never be able to “work” in the way it is understood under capitalism. Russell raises the point that within a capitalist economic system, the conception of disabled people as “unproductive” is hegemonic (p. 264). So, while illuminating the pervasive misconceptions that lead employers to resist hiring folks with disabilities or providing oftentimes inexpensive accommodations is important, this work does little to alter a system in which some cannot be understood as anything but “severely disabled,” and therefore not valuable. It is this line of thinking that leads to a conception of assisted suicide as the “compassionate” provision of a “service.” Learning to value the lives of folks presently only intelligible as “severely disabled” requires, I think, far more radical structural and societal change than liberal legal reforms can ever offer.

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